Probably almost everyone who visited Istanbul as a tourist used an opportunity to see the extraordinary building of Hagia Sophia. It's the most famous historical monument not only in Istanbul but also in Turkey. In 2015, it was visited by nearly 3.5 million people. Meanwhile, the mausoleums of Ottoman Sultans, located just next door, seem to be a mysterious place, virtually unknown to foreign tourists. Perhaps not everyone is aware that these tombs of the rulers of the Ottoman Empire are open to visitors. According to information supplied by many guidebooks, these buildings are not available to the public. Moreover, there are no official opening hours displayed at the entrance, so it is easy to encounter a closed gate. However, if you are near Hagia Sophia and are interested in the history of the Ottoman dynasty, it is worth visiting these buildings, even if it means leaving empty-handed several times before succeeding.
Sultan Mausoleums are beautifully decorated buildings of impressive size. They house the sarcophagi of five sultans and their family members. The oldest of these buildings was originally a baptistery of the church of the Holy Wisdom in the Byzantine era. The other four mausoleums were constructed during the Ottoman times.
Mausoleum of Sultan Selim II
This building is the oldest of the mausoleums erected in the courtyard during the Ottoman era. Its builder was the most famous Ottoman architect - Mimar Sinan. The mausoleum was built in 1577, on the octagonal plan, and covered with a double dome surrounded by sei-domes. The exterior of the mausoleum fulfilment with marble slabs and the interior is decorated with the famous Iznik tiles and calligraphy. The portico that leads to the interior of the building is supported by four columns. This mausoleum is considered the most elegant of all the tombs of the sultans of Istanbul.
Inside the building, there are 42 sarcophagi, including the one of Sultan Selim II. Other sarcophagi commemorate his first wife - Nurbanu, and his sons and daughters, including Ismihan, the wife of the Grand Vizier Sokollu Mehmed Pasha. Other sarcophagi belong to the children of Sultan Murad III.
Selim II, also known as Selim the Drunkard, was the son of one of the most prominent sultans - Suleiman the Magnificent. Unfortunately, the rule of Selim II began the era of slow decline of the Ottoman Empire, where the real power lay in the hands of people who had the influence on successive sultans. Selim II is said to have died as a result of hitting his head on the floor in a bath. Reportedly, he was in a state of intoxication and was chasing a concubine.
Five sons of Selim II, who have their sarcophagi in the mausoleum, were murdered on the night of their father's death. Their executions were made on orders of Selim's eldest son, Murad, to guarantee the seamless takeover of power in the Ottoman Empire.
Mausoleum of Sultan Murad III
The construction of another mausoleum - the one of Sultan Murad III - was also started by famous Sinan. The work was finished in 1599 by his student, Davud Ağa. He took the position of chief architect of the Sultan after his master's death.
The mausoleum was erected on a hexagon plan. The building was covered with marble slabs from the outside, and its interior - was lined with Iznik tiles. The entrance doors were made of ebony inlaid with mother of pearl. They bear the signature of their creator, Dalgıç Ahmed Ağa, a master of the mother of pearl handicraft. The beautiful dome of the mausoleum is decorated with calligraphy and geometric patterns from the inside.
The mausoleum is the resting place of Sultan Murad III, and his wife Safiye as well as Murad's sons and daughters. In total, there are 54 sarcophagi inside the building. Murad III was the son of Selim II and his wife, Nurbanu. He reigned in the period from 1574 to 1595. During his rule, he had to deal with the first rebellion of Janissaries. He also conducted the war with Persia and Austria.
Because of the reform of funeral traditions introduced by Murad III, his mother - Nurbanu - was buried alongside her husband, Selim II. Murad III died a natural death, in the Topkapı Palace. He spent the last hours of his life on the observation of vessels cruising down the Bosphorus. However, shortly after his death, the largest fratricide in the history of the Ottoman dynasty took place. The son of Murad III, elevated to the throne as Mehmed III, ordered the execution of his 19 brothers. They were later buried with honours in the mausoleum of his father. The concubines of Murad III who were pregnant when he died, were sewn into sacks and thrown into the Bosphorus.
Mausoleum of Princes
Next door to the mausoleum of Murad III, there is the mausoleum of his five children - four sons and a daughter. Relatively little information is available about the structure, although perhaps it was also designed by Sinan the architect.
The mausoleum was built in the late sixteenth century, on an octagonal plan, but with a square interior. Unlike other tombs, the mausoleum of princes is very modestly decorated. It has no trace of Iznik tiles or ornamental calligraphy, and only very simple paintings. The walls are covered with blocks of limestone, and the interior can be accessed through a marble portico with three naves.
Mausoleum of Sultan Mehmed III
Another mausoleum - of Mehmed III - was designed by the next court architect, Dalgıç Ahmed Ağa, in 1608. The building, on an octagonal plan, is covered by a dome, and its spacious interior is decorated with tiles from Iznik. Later, the mausoleum was expanded so that it could accommodate the sarcophagi of the sultan's daughters. The mausoleum houses 26 sarcophagi that belong to Mehmed III, Hadan - the mother of Sultan Ahmed I, children of Ahmed I, and the daughter of Mehmed III.
Sultan Mehmed III, who became famous because of the cruelest fratricide in the history of the Ottoman Empire, ruled the country until 1603. He governed the empire personally, without being influenced by the harem and advisors. He pursued a policy of territorial expansion of the empire, fighting against the Habsburgs and Persia. He tried to make the annexation of feudal lands of Moldavia and Wallachia, directly within the borders of the Ottoman state. His plans failed due to the intervention of Jan Zamoyski, the Polish nobleman and hetman, with its final during the Battle of Cecora in 1595.
Mehmed III died for unknown reasons at the age of just 37 years. Apparently, his death had been foretold one of the dervishes 55 days before. The sultan fell into an obsession which killed him, thus leading to the fulfillment of this prophecy. The rule of the Ottoman Empire fell into the hands of his 13-year-old son, Ahmed. The teenager refrained from the practice of killing his siblings. Perhaps the reason for this decision was that his only brother, Mustafa, was considered a madman.
Mausoleum of Sultan Mustafa I and Sultan Ibrahim I
The building of the mausoleum was built in the 6th century as the baptistery of Hagia Sophia. The structure, covered with a dome, was erected on a square plan, and its interior has an octagonal base. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the baptistery served as a storehouse of oil lamps for many years. In 1639, the year after the death of Sultan Mustafa I called the Mad, this building was transformed into his mausoleum.
It is said that Mustafa I, the brother of Ahmed I, suffered from a mental illness or was mentally retarded. This illness did not prevent him from taking the throne of the sultans twice - in the years 1617-1618 and 1622-1623. Finally, he relinquished the power in favour of his nephew, Murad IV.
The second sultan buried in the mausoleum - Ibrahim I - also did not belong to the most distinguished rulers of the Ottoman Empire. He reigned in the years 1640-1648, and was remembered mainly as a brutal rapist and murderer. He died strangled with a bowstring and was buried next to Mustafa I.
Sultan Mausoleums are situated right next to Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. However, there is a separate entrance to their grounds, from the southern direction that is from Kabasakal street. The official opening hours sometimes announced for visitors are 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. Admission is free of charge.
While visiting the tombs, one should follow the same rules that apply when visiting mosques. Before entering the interior of a mausoleum, remove your shoes, cover your arms and legs at least to the knees and elbows. Women are additionally expected to cover their hair.